Prof Sarah Gilbert, Covid vaccine creator: Now let’s take on 12 more diseases

Prof Sarah Gilbert, Covid vaccine creator: Now let’s take on 12 more diseases

10/17/2021 2:06:00 AM

Prof Sarah Gilbert, Covid vaccine creator: Now let’s take on 12 more diseases

Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert says medical science has transformed ambitions for new vaccines.

Getty ImagesMedical science has transformed the pandemic, and the experimental technologies that helped develop vaccines in record time have strapped rocket boosters to scientific ambitions. Could we be entering a golden age of new vaccines?If you head to the cutting edge of vaccinology you will find Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert, from the Jenner Institute and the architect of the Oxford vaccine.

Using a revolutionary technology, the team at Oxford had a vaccine ready to start clinical trials in just 65 days. In partnership with pharma giant AstraZeneca, more than 1.5 billion doses have been distributed around the world.Oxford vaccine: How did they make it so quickly?

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Didn't create a 'vaccine' and, with the exception of SputnikV, the experimental jabs so far created have very major safety and efficacy questions. How about we learn to crawl before we try to fly, never mind run or even walk? 'Progress' must be real, ethical, and sustainable. You can always admire her for a Nobel Prize next year.

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Image source, Getty Images Medical science has transformed the pandemic, and the experimental technologies that helped develop vaccines in record time have strapped rocket boosters to scientific ambitions. Could we be entering a golden age of new vaccines? If you head to the cutting edge of vaccinology you will find Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert, from the Jenner Institute and the architect of the Oxford vaccine. Using a revolutionary technology, the team at Oxford had a vaccine ready to start clinical trials in just 65 days. In partnership with pharma giant AstraZeneca, more than 1.5 billion doses have been distributed around the world. Oxford vaccine: How did they make it so quickly? You might assume that once you had reached the top of your professional tree you would be free to think profound thoughts that push the boundaries of human knowledge. Yet nearly every time I interview Prof Gilbert, I get the sense that a huge chunk of her time is taken up buying fridges and freezers. After all, if you can't keep viral samples and prototype vaccines cold then you can't do vaccine research. "I'm still being asked for more," Prof Gilbert tells me. But the kitchen, where such appliances are most commonly found, is not a bad place to build an understanding of the leap in vaccine science achieved by Prof Gilbert and her contemporaries. The new generation of vaccines are quick to make and highly flexible. "It's like decorating a cake," says Prof Gilbert. The old-school method of developing vaccines means you must go back to the raw materials and start from scratch for every vaccine you make. It is like starting with a bench of flour, sugar, eggs and butter. The next step is to take the offending virus, or other disease-causing microbes, and either kill it or weaken it to make a vaccine. Take the two seasonal flu vaccines that are given each year. The adult jab is made by growing influenza viruses inside eggs. The viruses are then purified and killed to make the vaccine. The nasal spray for children has live viruses, but these are made weak and unstable so they can grow in the cooler temperatures of the nose, but not in the warmth of the lungs. But it takes a lot of work to start from scratch for every new disease and there is plenty that can go wrong. You can end up with the vaccine-equivalent of a soggy bottom. Listen: Hear James interview Prof Gilbert on Inside Health The development of Oxford's coronavirus vaccine used a completely different approach known as "plug-and-play". With this type of vaccine most of the work has already been done - the cake has been pre-baked, it just needs to be "decorated" in order to match its target. "We've got the cake and we can put a cherry on top, or we can put some pistachios on top if we want a different vaccine, we just add the last bit and then we're ready to go," Prof Gilbert tells Inside Health. The Oxford vaccine's "cake" - or platform, to employ the scientific term - is a virus that causes the common cold in chimpanzees. It has been genetically modified to make it safe so that it cannot cause an infection in people. The "decoration" is whichever genetic blueprint is needed to train the immune system to attack. Such a blueprint is added to the cake and job done. It was this work, applied to the Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus, that led to Prof Gilbert's many accolades which range from a damehood to a Barbie doll made in her image. "Barbie's comfortably ensconced in my office, but yeah I am thinking of sending Barbie as a stand-in. "It would be useful to have a double who could go and do interviews for me," she says. Two of the other big Covid vaccines - one made by Pfizer-BioNTech and the other by Moderna - use another style of highly adaptable plug-and-play vaccine technology. And all these technologies should make it quicker and easier to develop the vaccines of the future. "There's a lot of vaccine development that we need to do now that we can do it," says Prof Gilbert. Top of her list of targets are the official "priority pathogens". While Covid was a surprise, these are the known threats that are bubbling away with the potential to cause large outbreaks and potentially the pandemics of the future. They include